Dir: Roger Hinze and Michael William Miles. Featuring: Stephen Olvey, Terry Trammell, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Helio Castroneves, and Rick Mears. 12A cert, 99 mins
Crash footage never gets any easier to watch That’s the main takeaway from Rapid Response, a documentary tracing the long and fraught history of medical safety in the world of IndyCar racing. Although it’s structured around a set of interviews given by both drivers and racetrack doctors, most of the time what we’re watching onscreen are the crashes themselves. Cars are pulverised on impact. They’re sent hurtling through the air, engulfed in flames. The clips are often shown on a loop, trapping us in a nightmare cycle of destruction. We’re left with the sickly reminder that somewhere in this carnage is a human being, who’s crossing their fingers and hoping they can walk away from the wreckage.
It’s a bold and relatively risky move for Rapid Response to take, considering there are those who will inevitably call its approach exploitative. Yet watch these accidents – spanning from the 1950s to the early 2000s – collected together, and you’re able to dispel the illusion that these are isolated, morbid spectacles. No longer are they the momentary ripples of shock through the crowd, before everyone’s attention is turned back to the narrative of winners and trophies. Instead, we see them in a larger framework, as repeating patterns of risk and as part of the daily anxiety that drivers have to push to the back of their mind. Rapid Response helps, in a small way, to deglamourise the dangerous thrill of the racetrack.
That’s thanks partially to the mindset of Dr Stephen Olvey, whose book Rapid Response: My Inside Story as a Motor Racing Life-Saver serves as the basis for the film. Although it’s directed by Roger Hinze and Michael William Miles, Olvey himself remains the dominant voice. He’s a medical man, of course, so there’s a detachment and a composure to how he tells his life story. He describes his first visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1955, where his racing hero, Bill Vukovich, was killed in front of his eyes. His father dissuaded him from becoming a driver, Olvey jumped at the opportunity to volunteer as part of the medical team for the Indianapolis 500. He quickly saw how urgently his skills were needed.
Safety was barely given any consideration back in the early days of motorsports. One out of seven drivers was killed each year. Only after immense tragedy would things actually change for the better: it took the deaths of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald, both caught in a massive fireball that consumed both their cars, for the use of gasoline to be finally outlawed. Olvey committed himself to finding more efficient ways to respond to trackside emergencies, moving away from using local volunteers (who had no medical training, but turned up after being promised a free ticket) and establishing a dedicated team of doctors and paramedics that travelled between different locations. In the early 1970s, Dr Terry Trammell began to work alongside Olvey. His speciality was orthopedics, since the majority of injuries involved feet and ankles, since they took most of the force of a crash. Together, they conducted extensive research into racing accidents that proved invaluable both to the sport and the auto industry at large.
As Rapid Response makes clear, this was a brutal, bloody learning curve. Their greatest revelations often came at the highest of costs: in 1999, the death of Gonzalo Rodríguez, caused by a skull fracture he received after his car flipped over the wall, led directly to the adoption of the now-crucial Head and Neck Support Device. What’s fascinating is that one of Olvey and Trammell’s biggest obstacles in their work was the sport’s “macho” attitude, meaning that drivers were often hesitant to actually vocalise any fears or complaints they might have. It took a good amount of coercion for those competing in 2001’s Firestone Firehawk 600 in Fort Worth, Texas, to finally admit that the G-forces they were experiencing on the track were making them dizzy. It remains the only race in the sport’s history have been cancelled due to safety reasons.
Admittedly, though Rapid Response is detailed and considerate in its approach to the subject, it’s also hobbled by the fact Olvey has so much control over the narrative itself. He’s a medical practitioner, not a storyteller, so there’s a tendency for each crash to be recounted in a rather matter-of-fact manner. Their experiences are presented as instructive examples, not as intrigue or colour. It’s hard for Olvey to really express what it feels like to witness such immense trauma; he mentions how one accident was so violent he considered quitting the profession entirely, but he brushes off most of the hardship because “90 per cent of the time it was a blast”. Yet, in a way, his steadiness helps balance out the more lurid extremes of being subjected to so much crash footage. Rapid Response isn’t exactly soul-rattling stuff, but it’s a sobering reminder of the true reality of a thrill-seeking life.
Rapid Response is released in UK cinemas on 6 September
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